Publishers' Forum in Berlin: 'Reconstructing Publishing'

Kathrin Passig at Publishers' Forum Berlin 27 April 2015 by Porter Anderson
Kathrin Passig at Publishers’ Forum Berlin. Image: Porter Anderson

The 2015 edition of Publishers’ Forum opened Monday (27th April) in Berlin with a determined tagline and programming to match: “How to Reconstruct Publishing: Competing Visions, Channels, and Audiences.”

Produced by German publishing software maker Klopotek, the day was launched by welcoming comments from that company’s Klaus-Peter Stegen and by Global e-Book co-author Rüdiger Wischenbart (pictured), who is in his first year as conference director, following a decade of leadership by Helmut von Berg.

In a bold setup to the two-day industry-facing event’s context, the initial plenary session of some 260 attendees heard from the respected, traditionally published author and journalist Kathrin Passig about her experience in creating a digital book of her own based on editorial blog columns.

In working with the year-old German e-book platform Sobooks, Passig said, “Over the course of six days, we exchanged more than a hundred emails.” But when she took the book to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) system, she said, the process required “15 minutes and one email.”

Passig’s observations on comparative author interfaces at these digital platforms, in fact, reflected what she discovered about working with publishing houses’ workflows, she said. She described — without rancor but in unflinching, quiet detail — how publishing-house processes, in her experience, run behind typical digital procedures in collaboration, parallel workflows, text processing, and documentation of standards. By the end of her 30-minute address. Passig had methodically established a framework for the day’s sessions to follow, saying: “I know you’re all very nice people that are a pleasure to work with…[but] you are making things more difficult for us, you’re making things more difficult for yourself, and you’re giving Amazon another advantage.”

Calling Passig’s opener “an insightful and sober note,” art publisher Dr. Rolf Grisebach of Thames and Hudsonconfirmed the underlying premise of the programme: “It looks like publishers don’t like change so much,” he said. “Maybe that’s why we love so much what we do that it is hard to change.”

“Once we realized that digital won’t go away,” Grisebach said, publishing worldwide began to face “a trend toward digitisation of the content, of marketing, sales [but] it’s not a linear trend. It’s very hard to predict the timing of the change, the extent of the change, and the proportion of print versus digital. And that creates more uncertainty…You do have to constantly adapt” strategic planning.

By way of illustration, Grisebach noted that his company saw a drop from 19 to 13 percent of sales in chain bookstores in the UK between 2010 and 2014. Even more stark was the distance he reported between independent bookstore sales and sales online and by mail order: in 2014, UK independent stores were responsible for some 5 percent of Thames and Hudson sales, while online and mail order transactions accounted for some 38 percent. In one form of physical store, however, the museum bookshop, Grisebach described a positive trend toward something akin to “event buying” among museum-goers.

Thames and Hudson’s main markets are found first in the UK, then in Continental Europe, then in the US, with special strength in Australia. But what he finds encouraging, Grisebach said, is that “the emerging economies, South America, the Asian economies, altogether is already about 20 percent of revenue for the company globally, and growing.

Growth was a key theme for Jacob Dalborg, as well, c.e.o. of Sweden’s Bonnier, who described his company as one of six groups of a conglomerate originating in 1804, the publishing business dating back to 1837. “The first book published” by his company, Dalborg told the audience, “wasProof That Napoleon Never Existed. I don’t know if it became that much of a bestseller.”

“It is really only in books that we have a substantial operation outside the Nordic region,” he said, in nine countries — Sweden, Germany, Norway, the UK, Finland, France Australia, Poland, and the US. With a wide range of product including fiction, nonfiction, children’s and juvenile, audiobooks, and comics, Bonnier has a number of book clubs “still alive and kicking,” Dalborg said. He added, however, that a once-robust book club scene is harder now to maintain, “as a number of our members are literally dying and new recruitment is limited.”

Total annual sales for Bonnier, Dalborg said, are around 725 million euros, and the company has some 3,000 employees. Literature’s “emotional” place in the Bonnier corporation, he said, has made it the core interest of the company. And “the very essence of our existence is in story. We believe completely and utterly in the power of story and that there will always be a good and strong market for it,” regardless of a digitally driven multiplicity of formats.

If Dalborg’s message was an upbeat faith in the salability of story, his note about the evolving audience was cautionary about “major changes in the behaviour of our readers.” The competition is from other media, he told the forum, with products that appear to many to be “much more up-to-date and also cheaper” than books. Major change is impacting us and we need to adjust to the new reality. We must become better and more cost-efficient, otherwise customers will choose other products.”

And the day’s highlights to follow were reflections of that concept.

In a panel discussion somewhat whimsically titled “Know Your Customer and Don’t Be Afraid,” Milan-based consultant Marcello Vena asserted that way to gain consumer understanding is to “discover, monitor, attract, and reward social” media, particularly through the activities online of authors.

He was joined by MarkLogic’s Matt Turner in calling for an intensification of the current focus on D2C, direct-to-consumer, activities. “Think about this as a core competency,” Turner told the group, as “linkage between user and content…What happens when you start to see your customers?

“Maybe if you know your customer, you get to know yourself.”

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By Porter Ander­son

The FutureBook:  Publishers’ Forum in Berlin: ‘Reconstructing Publishing’

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